A few years ago, the micro-car segment was pretty much dead. As recently as 2015, micro cars accounted for less than 1.0 per cent of the Australian new car market, and volume was quickly declining.
Fast-forward to 2019, and Kia's pint-sized Picanto is thriving, and continues to show growth on the sales charts month after month. In fact, the Korean brand's smallest offering locally commands around 80 per cent of that market (Feb' 2019), and is up around 25.0 per cent year-to-date as of the end of February. That's huge, showing that dire circumstances don't have to mean an entire segment dies.
As a result of its recent success, Kia has expanded the Picanto range considerably since the current-generation model launched in 2017. Originally launching solely in base 'S' trim, the family has since been expanded to include GT-Line, X-Line, and now GT variants – the latter being the one we have here on test.
The 2019 Kia Picanto GT is priced from $17,990 drive-away, and while that's competing on dollar value with various players from the segment above – including Kia's own Rio – the GT brings a pretty high level of specification.
Headlining that spec sheet is what lies beneath the bonnet, a 1.0-litre turbocharged three-cylinder petrol engine making 74kW at 4500rpm and 172Nm of torque between 1500 and 4000rpm, which is specific to this model.
In overseas markets like Europe, the 1.0-litre turbo triple is offered as an engine option rather than a standalone variant. However, Kia Australia has given the GT a specific steering and damper tune to give it a sportier edge than the standard GT-Line. More on that later.
Another anomaly within the Picanto family is the fact the GT is available solely with a five-speed manual, which may limit its appeal in terms of sales, though it's a godsend for enthusiasts, and for those who can shift gears themselves that might be underwhelmed with the naturally aspirated 1.25-litre mill available across the wider range.
We may as well start with the driving, right?
First things first, it's not quite the 'GT' you might be expecting. Sure, the 1.0-litre turbo is noticeably more muscular than the standard engine, but it's not quite 'fast' – 'enthusiastic', if you will.
Alborz noted the doughy gearshift at the local launch, though I don't think it's that bad given the intended market. The longish throw and high clutch take-up point don't feel as sporty as the GT moniker may suggest, but on the flipside the damped controls make for easier use around town, particularly in traffic.
We also appreciated the characterful thrum coming from the three-pot engine under load, which never got too loud or thrashy, even under full acceleration. It's quite a charming little jigger to punt around town, where it will likely spend most of its time.
Compared to the wider Picanto range, the GT has been given the firmest damper tune and sharpest steering calibration to enhance the sporty vibe. It's certainly firm, perhaps a little too firm around town given its urban focus, though it's not entirely uncomfortable. The firmer tune does help in the bends, though, helping to limit the Picanto's body roll despite the tall, skinny body.
Combined with the direct steering, the Picanto GT is actually quite a bit of fun to drive. It's one of those cars that you can really push to the limit within the confines of the law, which is a positive in itself given many performance cars will never see their full potential on strictly governed Australian roads.
Having that fifth gear is really beneficial on the open road, too, as revs are kept to around 2500rpm at 100km/h, compared to 3000rpm and above in models equipped with the four-speed auto.
Being a sub-$20,000 micro car, the Picanto was never meant to be a cross-continental tourer, but it certainly impresses with its open-road ability relative to the segment. I took the GT for a massive day of driving one weekend, which covered Melbourne to Rosebud, and then from Rosebud up to Kilmore in one day – which is around 250km all up.
On the freeway, the Picanto sat happily in fifth with the cruise control on, feeling planted and inspiring confidence even in wet weather at 100km/h. The drive to Kilmore, meanwhile, was mostly spent at night, and the Kia's headlights proved to be effective in poorly lit sections of the Hume Freeway – one advantage of having the projector lenses fitted to the GT (and GT-Line and X-Line).
At 110km/h, the Picanto still felt like it had a bit of go in the event of needing to complete a quick overtake, and the cruise control managed to keep a consistent speed up inclines. I doubt this is the sort of driving a target buyer would regularly engage in, though.
Noise suppression wasn't fantastic, with a noticeable level of perceived tyre noise entering the cabin over most surfaces at high speed, though wind noise wasn't really heard. This is a pretty minor complaint given the price bracket and segment this car competes in, though we'd suggest that you look at the class above if you plan to do a lot of open-road driving on a budget.
We saw an indicated 6.8L/100km following our week with the car, which included over 826km of mixed driving, including the aforementioned 250km day of road-tripping, which is quite a bit up on Kia's 4.8L/100km official combined claim. Even so, you can expect around 500km of range using that indicated figure from the Picanto's tiny 35L fuel tank, which is pretty impressive given it can run on 91RON fuel.
Beyond the mechanical changes, what else do you get for your money?
Well, if you're familiar with the GT-Line variant, there's not much separating the GT in terms of equipment. Like its non-turbocharged subordinate, the GT gets 16-inch alloy wheels, dusk-sensing halogen projector headlights with LED daytime-running lights, LED tail-lights, a sports body kit, dual tailpipes, a 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, 'premium' leatherette trim for the seats (with red accents), steering wheel and shift knob, along with alloy sports pedals and electric folding exterior mirrors with integrated LED indicators.
In terms of safety, the Picanto GT, like other members of the line-up, gets autonomous emergency braking with forward-collision warning, six airbags, two ISOFIX child seat mounts for the outboard rear seats, along with three top tether points – not that you'd be able to fit three child seats across the second-row bench, though. Kia should be applauded for being one of the few manufacturers offering AEB on a manual car.
You also get the full suite of electronic aids like ABS, ESC, traction control and the like, along with hill-start assist (handy for beginner manual drivers), a rear-view camera with dynamic guidelines, and rear parking sensors.
Despite all the safety gear, the Picanto does, however, wear a four-star ANCAP safety rating awarded in 2017 based on tests conducted by Euro NCAP. The little Kia scored a solid 87 per cent for adult occupant protection, but was pinged for average results in child occupant protection in the rear along with pedestrian protection.
Overall, it's not like you're really left wanting for much in terms of spec, though it would have been nice for Kia to include the higher-spec infotainment system with in-built satellite navigation and the option of heated seats that it offers overseas, given the GT's flagship status in the Picanto range. Fairly minor drawback, though.
Despite its compact dimensions, the Picanto proves to be surprisingly roomy, in relative terms, of course. The high roofline and uncluttered dashboard design make for an open and airy feel up front, while the rear has enough space for two 6ft-tall adults over short journeys.
Behind the second row of seats is a 255L luggage area, which is bigger than both the Mazda 2 and Suzuki Swift – which are in the class above, mind you – expanding to a rather impressive 1010L with the back seats folded. There's a pretty big hump where the boot floor meets the seat back, though you can fit plenty of stuff nevertheless.
What really sets the Picanto apart from the pack, however, is Kia's industry-leading seven-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty with roadside assistance and capped-price servicing for the duration of the program.
For first-car buyers or those looking to downsize to something cheap to run and maintain, the Picanto presents a very compelling case from an ownership perspective.
Scheduled maintenance for the turbocharged model is required every 12 months or 10,000km, whichever comes first. It's worth noting Kia has shorter 10,000km intervals for its turbocharged petrol vehicles, while naturally aspirated petrols and turbo diesels have longer 15,000km intervals.
The first five visits (60 months, 50,000km) will set you back $271, $452, $315, $495 and $305 respectively, totalling $1838 over that period. During the life of the seven-year program, the Picanto GT will set you back $2964 in maintenance costs – the sixth and seventh services are $555 and $571 respectively.
All told, the Picanto GT is a great addition to the local range. Personally, I reckon it should have been badged the GT-Line Turbo as it is more of an engine variant rather than a proper performance model.
In saying that, the new engine addresses the key criticism I had about the GT-Line I reviewed last year – the drivetrain.
What it lacks in straight-line pace, the Picanto GT makes up for in enjoyment, charm and character. It's a fun thing to drive pretty much all the time, and you can really push it to its limits without being unsafe or breaking the law. Furthermore, the five-speed manual is a far better option than the four-speed automatic.
As an entry-level offering, the turbocharged Picanto makes a strong case for itself for a first-time car buyer looking to have a bit of fun on a budget, or enthusiasts who will appreciate the little Kia's chuckable dynamics and thrummy three-pot engine. Add to that the fact it's manual-only, and you could see the Picanto GT filling the void left by Volkswagen's Up!, which was pulled from the market several years ago.
By no means is the Picanto GT perfect, nor does it really live up to its 'GT' badging. But on face value, it's a great little urban runabout that will put a smile on your face whether you're driving in the ’burbs or on a B-road. Plus, it's a bloody bargain.